The countryside of Burundi, by Yvan Pavlov Harushimana

Roland Rugero’s Baho! is a cyclone of a novel, a whirlwind of emotions and ideas skillfully compressed into 98 pages by the author and by his English translator, Christopher Schaefer. The book begins with a simple misunderstanding, which spirals out of control: the mute narrator, Nyamuragi, is mistakenly thought to be sexually harassing a young woman. As angry villagers pursue Nyamuragi, chasing him across the storied hilltops of rural Burundi, his mind rakes over his short lifetime of memories. At different points in the story of this pursuit, readers feel empathy for very single character—even the perpetrators of the violence. When Nyamuragi is finally caught and beaten, the labels of perpetrator and victim blur impossibly, leaving the reader uncertain not only of what transpired in this Central African village, but about the conventional wisdom that underpins our received narratives about violence.

Rugero persuades readers to consider different types of violence in layered simultaneity: gender-based violence, genocide, political violence, and the occasional brutality of village justice. His irresistible narrative voice demands that we not turn away. When my students and I read Baho!, we felt that we were experiencing a story told by someone old and wise. But Roland Rugero wrote the novel while still in his twenties, and it became the first novel by a Burundian writer to be translated into English.

Rugero was born in Burundi and grew up in Rwanda and Tanzania, surrounded by books in places where they were extremely rare. He publishes a magazine in a country where few people read for pleasure. He writes novels in French but conceives them in his mother tongue, Kirundi. He grapples with violence and beauty and what it means to live a literary life in a place where that is uncommon.

Rugero is a working artist—a journalist, a novelist, a screenwriter (he wrote and directed Burundi’s second-ever feature film), and an activist building a literary culture in a country where orality dominates. I invited Rugero to be part of “The Daily Writer,” an interview series I organized in early 2021 at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA. My students and I interviewed Rugero together. During our conversation, we were deeply impressed by the optimism, energy, and creativity that Rugero brings to his work.

Wendy Call for Guernica

Guernica: What was your path to becoming a writer? What was your relationship to reading and literature when you were a child?

Rugero: We grew up in a family that didn’t have a TV; we had only books. We were children that read first, because we didn’t have anything like smartphones or the digital gadgets that we have now. So, we grew up reading.

While growing up, I didn’t dream that I would one day be a writer. I grew up thinking that I would become a pilot. Or that I would teach physics or mathematics. I studied math and physics in high school, and I even did mathematics my first year in the university. I had to let go of the dream of becoming a pilot, though, because I don’t have perfect vision. I ended up being a journalist. Journalism is a way of feeding my passion for literature. On a daily basis, I write news about what’s happening in Burundi. Over the longer term, I write novels, so the two sides of my writing interact.

Guernica: In many parts of the world, the best novelists and poets are also journalists.

Rugero: Journalism keeps me in touch with the breath of the world.

Guernica: When you were growing up, did you know any writers? When did you first meet someone who had published a book?

Rugero: In Burundi, we don’t have a strong writing scene. There are maybe three or four writers; we are not so common in Burundi. Here, we grow up reading French literature and some West African authors. In high school, it was all French authors. We don’t get to meet or talk with writers here. When I became a journalist, I got to have contact with writers because I was covering cultural news.

What we experience as writers in French-speaking countries is very different from the United States, or even Anglophone countries in Africa. Without contacts in Paris, it’s very difficult to have your book published or to have it recognized. While I was at the University of Iowa in 2013, as part of the International Writers Program, I met authors from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Uganda. It is different for them, because they have local printers and editors, and a way of promoting literature in their countries. But for those of us writing in French, we first must be published in Paris, and then we can hope to have some recognition in the French reading public and in French-speaking countries.

At the University of Iowa, I was in a group of 30 writers from around the world. One of the things that most surprised us was having our writing taught in U.S. universities, especially by professors who were not literary scholars, but rather taught in the university because they were successful writers. That doesn’t happen in most of our French-speaking countries.

Every time that I travel to other countries, one of the best feelings is when I get into a library and see thousands of books. During the eight weeks I spent at the University of Iowa, I would wake up in the morning and go to the library and walk between the bookshelves. And I would select whatever book that I felt in my gut: yes, there was something in that book for me.

Guernica: Could you talk about how you connected with the French publisher of Baho! and also how the book was received?

Rugero: There is an annual book fair in Paris. One year I was there as a journalist, just wandering through the publishers’ displays. I met a writer I knew from Madagascar, who used to work for France International Radio, Michèle Rakotoson. She took me around and introduced me to the editors, saying, “This is a good writer. Please, if he sends you something, just take that time to read it.”

Guernica: Those introductions are so important.

Rugero: Exactly! It’s so rare. I am so grateful for the opportunity that she gave me. Just one year later I sent the manuscript for Baho! to the French editor and three months or so after that, I was told that it was accepted. I was so happy. It’s not so common to see a young guy in Africa publishing a novel in French from Paris. I was very proud.

Baho! is my first book expressing my own voice as a writer, through the dialogue between the French and Kirundi universes in the novel. Here in Burundi, 95 percent of the time, we speak Kirundi. I am swimming in Kirundi, which I had to translate into French to put it on paper. Then Chris Schaefer came along and made Baho! into English. So it was a three-step process before an English-speaker could read what I originally thought in Kirundi.

I am very proud of the publisher, David Shook at Phoneme. I am also proud of the translator, Chris Schaefer, for the work that he did to connect with the French version of my novel, and also with the Kirundi spirit that is within the French words. That was beautiful.

Guernica: How does being multilingual affect or influence your writing style?

Rugero: Burundians speak at least three languages. First Kirundi, and then French in school, and we use also Swahili, which is one of the most common languages in Africa. Then in East Africa, the main common language is English, so we have to speak English. Many of us have family or other contacts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, so we speak a little bit of Lingala. Burundian students study abroad in China, Russia, India, or in Scandinavian countries. So many of our people speak six or seven languages. But for most of us, Kirundi is the language in which we think about and see the world. This is what I experience as a writer. I can pick up words from French to describe something that may be not be easy for me to describe me English or Kirundi. For my novel Baho!, I felt things in Kirundi, but I described them in French.

The business of writing is being able to connect with spirit and with emotion, with all that the reader is feeling. I dream and cry in Kirundi, but if I want to describe it on the page, then I do it in French. As a tool, the French language helps me be more objective.

Guernica: How did it feel to be the first person from your country to have your novel translated and published in English?

Rugero: As a young writer, I am proud of that achievement, but again, it is sad because it shows that for so many years, as a country, we have not been able to realize our potential as a place where voices matter in literature. It is a responsibility, also, to be the first one to have had this opportunity. I have a duty to help other young people be published.

Guernica: What was the reception of Baho! in Burundi?

Rugero: The book had a very warm welcome here. Then, of course, people here wanted to know: How did you manage to be published in France? Can you help us get published? It’s just ridiculous: people have to go 12,000 kilometers from Burundi to be published!

That’s why I began thinking about launching a publishing house here. It’s a long process: searching for money and for people who will run the publishing house. I think maybe in two or three years, I will be able to achieve that dream. I want to help all the young people here who have the skills and motivation and incredible stories to tell the world, but they don’t have the infrastructure.

We have to get an infrastructure here to publish novels and poetry and essays and whatever is produced locally. So, I will do that.

Guernica: Would this be Burundi’s first publishing house?

Rugero: There have been unsuccessful efforts in the past. Bujumbura it at the border of Democratic Republic of Congo, which is a huge country with huge opportunities for young people to create. I think that if we have a good publishing house here in Burundi, we can link people and languages and culture and make something extraordinary.

Guernica: Are the books that are currently read in Burundi from France or are they published in French-speaking African countries?

Rugero: Most of the books produced in French-speaking African countries are for schools. There are partnerships with the International Organization of La Francophonie and other organizations that bring books into the country.

Guernica: Your vision is to publish books in both French and Kirundi?

Rugero: Yes, and also English. There are some young Burundians, who fled the country 20 years ago during the war, or whose families left the country 50 years ago, who are still connected to the Kirundi language but feel more at ease writing in English. We have memories and we have something to tell the world about being Burundian. So we need to create a space where all those voices come together and are promoted.

Guernica: You’ve already started on that path by publishing a magazine. Could you tell us about Jimbere? It’s a beautiful magazine.

Rugero: I began Jimbere five years ago. I was doing my studies in sociology in Rwanda. I came up with a proposal to launch a space where young people in Burundi can get in touch with the world through words. We used to say in Burundi that “we don’t read.” But I think that’s firstly because we don’t have anything to read. We don’t have books in our schools, nor in our homes. Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world. People are looking for the money to eat and for shelter, rather than to buy a book. Reading and having access to books is a privilege.

I thought of creating a program that would produce books for schools around the country, so that young people in schools would have something fun to read. That is Jimbere. We have been able to partner with different organizations. With the help of UNICEF, we are distributing books up to 3,400 schools in the country. Millions of young people are reading and we are very proud of them. My dream is that they will not be not only able to read, but they’ll be able to write.

We went out and met with more than 2,000 young people in 60 schools. In those 60 schools, young men and women are meeting every week to read and discuss Jimbere, to become acculturated to reading. If we launch a publishing house, but people don’t come to buy books, because they aren’t accustomed to it, it will be very hard for us. So we’re building the desire to buy books.

Jimbere is printed in Kampala, Uganda, because printing is much more affordable there. Printing a book in Burundi is two to three times as expensive as in Uganda, where they have daily newspapers and therefore the infrastructure for printing in large quantities. I hope that by the time that we launch a publishing house here in Burundi, the infrastructure to print locally will exist.

Guernica: Does Baho! have autobiographical elements? Or is it based on stories that you heard?

Rugero: Well, as a writer, you don’t create out of nothing. You create from your experience, from what you’ve been through, from what your country has been through, from your daily life, from what you have read. I wrote Baho! reflecting on the atmosphere and the kind of questions that I had regarding Burundi as a country. I wrote it ten years ago. At that time, we were preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our independence from colonialism—though Burundi has existed for centuries as a nation. At that time, I was thinking: How we could describe our history of violence, without doing more violence?

The biggest challenge in Burundi is that we have been in cycles of violence for many years. I thought of that one of the best ways of addressing this violence was to challenge the educational system and give to young people in Burundi something to read. As I grew up reading, I learned to see and to feel and to be able to know that the world is much bigger than my little village, my town, my country.

For a Burundian reader, what is most important isn’t what the main character says, but what he doesn’t say. The two main characters are very introverted. This introversion is a way of reminding readers that what’s most important is what is unsaid. There is a Kirundi expression: “The word that loves you stays in your belly.” It’s a way of saying that the more introverted you are, the safer you can be in your life. Which is the opposite of U.S. culture, I guess.

Guernica: My students were struck by the portrayal of animals in the novel. At one point, the narrator says the farm animals are part of his family. Can you talk about how animals are perceived in Burundian culture?

Rugero: Animals are parts of humankind. In Burundian culture, comparisons to cows are a typical reference for beauty. For example, to say that a woman is walking gracefully, you would say, she’s walking like a cow. So imagine: I was thinking about this saying in Kirundi and then translated it into French and sent it to my French editor. My editor was shocked. She asked, “How can you compare a woman to a cow? It’s just disgusting.”

Guernica: An editor who can’t imagine a different culture?

Rugero: Exactly. Here in Burundi, as in other cultures, bonds have been built between humans and animals. Cows and sheep are part of our daily lives and daily interaction. For us, sheep are sacred. I was not aware that my way of describing animals would be anything interesting for readers. For me, these interactions are beautiful. In rural areas, the sheep and goats sleep in the same small house with the owners, so they are members of the family.

Guernica: Like cats and dogs in the United States.

Rugero: Exactly, exactly.

Guernica: One of my students was struck by the many representations of beauty in your writing. She asks: What is your favorite thing about the place you grew up? What do you find beautiful about it?

Rugero: Kirundi is one of the beautiful things about my country. Kirundi, my mother tongue, is the ring in which we are constantly wrestling. Despite the fact that we’ve had French in our elementary schools, high schools, and universities, we have one language: Kirundi. We are still bonded to our language. It is what and who we are.

Yet this student’s question is a very hard question for me. I am working on a book about beauty. What is beautiful for a Burundian? How do we perceive beauty as Burundians? Those have been my questions for six or seven years now. But this book is making me crazy. My third novel, the one I’m working on now, is my journey in understanding my aesthetic references as a Burundian. I have been to France, Switzerland, South Africa, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda, and I keep asking people: What is beauty? A lot of time, when I’m talking with people, they don’t realize that I’m having those conversations just to gather material for my book. I want this to be a crazy book.

Guernica: My experience reading Baho! was that it feels like a bridge between the rural communities featured in the novel and a more urban readership, as well as between the Kirundi origin and spirit of the story and a French- and English-speaking readership.

Rugero: Burundi is a tiny country, between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania—both very large countries. We are between French-speaking West Africa and English-speaking East Africa. We can be a bridge between these different countries and languages. A place where people meet to discuss and to listen to one another.

One of the biggest challenges for a writer in Burundi is that you are looked at as a spokesperson—of a community, or of one ethnicity, or of one side that has been affected by the violence. Because you have the privilege of writing and being read. At the same time, having that privilege means you have the potential to expose our country and our culture. It would be very sad if you are just a spokesperson for one community and not inviting people to look at Burundi as a whole.

I am not the voice of Burundi; I am just the voice of myself. I just want to be able to produce a good book that three or four or five Americans would read and laugh and be sad and cry and say, “Well, there’s a guy in Burundi who writes interesting stories.” And in 10 or 15 years, we’ll have three or five or 10 writers from Burundi. Then we can be the voice of something. We can be as grateful as we want, but at the end of the day, we are just our own voices, in one way or another.

Wendy Call

Wendy Call is co-editor of Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide, author of No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy, and translator of the forthcoming In the Belly of Night and Other Poems by Irma Pineda. A recent Fulbright Scholar in Colombia, Wendy lives, writes, translates poetry, and edits books in Seattle.

Roland Rugero

Roland Rugero’s novels include Les Oniriques and Baho! The latter was the first Burundian novel to be translated and published in English, by Phoneme Media in 2016. Rugero has held residencies at the City of La Rochelle in France, and at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. In 2011 he wrote and directed Les pieds et les mains, the second-ever feature-length film from Burundi. He is active in promoting Burundi’s literary culture nationwide and around the world: he co-founded the Samandari Cafe Littéraire, co-founded the Michel Kayoya and Andika Prizes, and serves as executive director of the youth-oriented publication Jimbere. He lives in Bujumbura, Burundi.

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